Governance of the high seas – important marine conservation treaty being negotiated with very little fanfare


With remarkably little press coverage a UN facilitated conference is underway with a view to producing a new treaty governing various uses of the high seas. The eventual aim is for the states involved to agree the wording of a treaty governing the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (i.e. the high seas).

While many will not yet have heard of the “Intergovernmental Conference on an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction” (“BBNJ” for short), if it succeeds in reaching agreement it could be a significant development for marine conservation. A comprehensive regime could also establish the legal certainty required to propel the “blue economy” to new heights.

One of the key targets of the conference is to reach agreement in respect of the exploitation of “marine genetic resources”. Such material is anticipated to be key to the development of future industrial and medical applications and there are significant policy debates over how the use of such resources should be regulated to ensure they can be utilised ethically and the proceeds of their utilisation distributed fairly.

The four focal points for the conference are:

  • Access to and exploitation of marine genetic resources;

  • A framework for the establishment of Marine Protection Areas (or other “area based management tools”);

  • Requirements for states to undertake environmental impact assessments in connection with their activities on the high seas;

  • Capacity building and the transfer of marine technology.

    The conference has already held two meetings with the third session currently underway and further session planned for 2020.  Following the earlier sessions a draft of a potential framework for a treaty has been released but as it stands significant parts of the document’s wording remain in square brackets (suggesting they remain to be discussed / agreed).

    As it stands it is difficult to know how successful the conference will be. Even if there is agreement at the end of the conference, the array of alternative outcomes currently posited through the square bracketed sections means the effectiveness of any treaty will remain open to question until the final text is pinned down. For example, the current threshold for requiring states to provide environmental impact assessments range from activities involving “substantial pollution of or significant and harmful changes to the marine environment” to activities having “more than a minor or transitory effect” on the same.

    So, we will have to wait and see what comes out of the fourth session but the conference itself appears to be garnering significantly less attention than it is arguably due given the potential environmental (and, in due course, scientific, medical and industrial) benefits that could arise from it. 

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